On Saturday, an Alaska Airlines aircraft pushed back from gate C9 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with 46 families aboard before returning to the same gate 30 minutes later.
Inside the cabin, small faces were plastered to the aircraft’s tiny, rain-soaked windows as a disembodied voice came across the intercom: “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to welcome you to flight 9385 with service to… Seattle.”
More than 50 children with autism spectrum disorder had arrived at the airport that day as part of The Arc of King County’s Wings for Autism event, which helps prepare individuals with autism and their families for air travel. Think of it like a dress rehearsal for air travel specifically tailored for individuals on the spectrum.
Since the Seattle area adaptation of the national program in January 2013, the program has been run by Samantha Court, The Arc of King County’s marketing and development coordinator.
“I had just started here and I jumped on (the Wings for Autism project),” Court said of her first days at The Arc. “I knew I was young to take on a big project, but it is something near and dear to my heart because my aunt is still driving across the country with my cousin (with ASD), and she hasn’t successfully gotten him on a plane.”
In order to make the simulation as real as possible for the children, each individual is given their own boarding pass and families planning trips overseas are encouraged to bring passports to get children used to showing them. The children also are instructed to bring their own carry-on luggage for their (often arduous) journey through TSA check points.
“Their luggage — they open it when going through TSA — it is full of a bunch of their lovies, all their little plush toys and their blankets,” Court said. “I love that. It’s just too cute.”
TSA and other airport personnel receive training from the local Arc chapter in the days leading up to the event. They are taught about what autism is, how to accommodate individuals on the spectrum, and how to distinguish a sensory meltdown from a typically unruly child as well as how to act in that situation.
“TSA (personnel) are my favorite people to have in training because they ask the most questions because they see so much and it’s such a crucial — and kind of daunting — task to get through security,” Court said. “They raise their hands every time and ask me to walk them through a situation where in their head they thought a child was having the biggest tantrum.”
Once the families have cleared TSA, they traverse the sensory-heavy corridors of the airport before arriving at their gate and enduring a (typically) lengthy wait to board the aircraft. The children pass the time by eating snacks, receiving hugs and affection from their parents, and playing games with their iPads before finally presenting their mock boarding passes and climbing on board the aircraft.
“We’ve got a whole crew with flight attendants and everything,” Court said. “A lot of the actual crew has a very close association to an individual with a disability, so it is very near and dear to so many people.”
Alaska Flight Attendant Julia Bishop may have been the exception. The night before, Bishop had arrived in Seattle by way of Orlando and was supposed to be on call the next day. She awoke the next morning and was surprised to find that she was scheduled to work the Wings for Autism event. Bishop said the Wings for Autism event was her second day on the job as a flight attendant. Ever.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to be here, thrilled,” Bishop said with a wide grin as she waved and offered high-fives to children boarding the plane. As Bishop continues with her new career, she said the lessons she learned about individuals with autism will stay with her forever. “I’m most grateful for being educated by these families who live this every day,” she said.
Once everyone is buckled and the oh-so-familiar safety brief has been given, the adventure begins.
First Officer Sabrina Riffle comes over the intercom and begins to narrate what she is doing before she does it, telling the children when she is going to speed up, slow down, make a turn, rev the engines, and adjust the wing flaps before finally simulating take-off.
“On the tarmac we get up to 90 miles an hour so it is actually a stimulating take-off with the sounds and the vibrations,” Court said. “When we do slow down it feels the exact same way to them to land and then be slowing down on the tarmac. It is pretty amazing.”
After a second take-off simulation, this time with no narration, Riffle taxied around the airport acting as a guide pointing out various aspects of Alaska’s operations before arriving back at the gate.
Not a single child had a sensory meltdown or even whimpered during the simulations — but there were some misty-eyed parents.
“Everyone is just bawling the entire time… but in a good way,” Court said of the parents and caregivers on the flight.
The Arc plans to do another Wings for Autism event late next spring. Visit The Arc’s website for more information. Wings for Autism also takes place in cities like Arlington, Baltimore, and Myrtle Beach.
In the meantime, if you are planning of flying with an individual with autism or other special needs, consider reaching out to TSA Cares. This underutilized program accommodates passengers with medical needs or disabilities if notified 72 hours prior to the flight. Accommodations vary by disability and how burdened TSA personnel are at the time of security screenings. However, oftentimes they can expedite families through the line and provide more focused, less rushed attention to individuals who need more time and understanding.